What Does The Lord Require of You? (A Sermon for Epiphany 4A)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Cypress, Texas)
January 29, 2017
Micah is a prophet writing largely to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern Kingdom. For some background, at this time Israel has been divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom known as Israel and the southern kingdom known as Judah.
This is a community that remembers the division that split God’s people into two distinct territories; they are a community that eventually watches their neighbor, Israel, fall to the Assyrians.
The people of Jerusalem, oddly enough, seem overconfident in their indestructibility, despite the chaos that surrounds them. They believe they are doing all that the Torah demands of them in the way of ritual and worship, and because of that they expect God’s blessing and protection.
And as you read through Micah, you begin to see some of the behaviors of this community: worshipping idols; the wealthy taking advantage of the poor; political extortion; buildings and infrastructure built using exploited labor; just to name a few.
So, in the midst of this situation, Micah tells the people of God that they have forgotten their identity and what is required of them as a community. Micah is clear in his prophecy; Jerusalem will fall like Israel, and become a heap of ruins.
His message was clear: although they were obeying the law, they failed to obey God.
Micah puts God’s people on trial. The language used here is that of a courtroom. “What have I done to you?” asks the Lord. “Remember, I rescued you from slavery in Egypt? How could you forget? I gave you Moses.”
Or, in other words, do you remember where you’ve come from? Do you remember your story? Do you remember my faithfulness? Do you remember the promised land, the land to which I led you and the land which has provided for you?” Remember these things, says the Lord.
The people then respond to this accusation, asking what they should do. Convicted by their guilt, they ask God, “what shall we do, what is it you want from us? Do you want sacrifices? Thousands of rams? 10,000 rivers of oil? Our firstborn? What do you want?”
Micah then gives us the answer, and we get one of the most beautiful and succinct summaries of the Christian life ever written. “What does the Lord require of you…” That word translated “required” is translated other places in the Bible as “seek.” So, what does the Lord seek, “but for people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
Micah is questioning religious behavior that is unaccompanied by ethical practice.
Right worship, making sacrifices, going through the ritual motions–does not make up for wrong behavior. What does all of that matter if one isn’t living in a way that reflects God’s justice, God’s kindness and God’s love?
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So then we have our three tasks: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.
First we have “do justice.” Justice seeks to change unjust conditions. What are we doing, in our lives, to help change unjust situations? Maybe you marched on Washington or Austin last weekend? Or maybe you call your city council member about the massage parlor that seems to operate at unconventional hours. Or maybe you search for those places within yourself that make you think less of another person, those places that make you question someone else’s value. Unjust structures exist within our own souls as well.
Then we have “love kindness.” Here we have the corollary to justice. If justice seeks to topple the unjust structures, then kindness (or mercy, as it is sometimes translated) seeks to alleviate the immediate suffering of the people affected. Feeding the hungry, or tutoring an at-risk child, for instance.
In kindness and justice we have our marching orders. The two are related, but different. We are called both to care for people (that’s kindness) and to seek to change the conditions that cause suffering (that’s justice).
To use just one example that has become very essential in the last couple of days…we can seek to sure up our national security, and also work to improve the safety and economic security in other countries. That’s justice.
But we can also see and receive and care for the person who is standing on our nation’s doorstep because they are afraid to go home. That is kindness.
We can, and should do both. Both are needed. Both are essential. Both are God’s desire for people that call themselves Christian.
Finally, we have “walk humbly.” The word that is so often translated as “humbly” is an interesting word. This particular word is used only once in all of Scripture, right here in Micah chapter 6, making it difficult to translate it into English in a way that expresses its meaning in a way that is faithful to the intent of the author.
In the ancient Hebrew, this word had more depth. It meant to be cautious, to be careful, to be deliberate, to be reasonable. So, more accurately, to walk humbly with God is to recognize one’s relationship with God. Perhaps another way to translate this is to “walk rightly with God.”
The people in Jerusalem thought they were doing all of the right things, but really they were missing what God had desired.
We can go through the motions of what we think it looks like to be a Christian: go to church, give our tithes, sing in the choir, pray. These are good things indeed; please don’t hear me say otherwise.
But God wants so much more. God wants to walk with us in a way that shapes our lives. Our faith in Jesus should shape our actions.
So as we hear about people who are hurting, whether they are factory workers that lost their jobs in the rust belt, or refugees from Iraq, we have a pretty good idea about what God desires.
We have a pretty good idea about what God requires. We can discuss and debate about the exact actions we should take, but we can’t debate our need to act.
So as we leave this place and enter a world broken by human sin – a world that has been broken by human sin long before this most recent inauguration, long before George Washington’s inauguration, and long before Micah ever uttered a prophecy – I only have one question for us to grapple with this week. Are we going to be Christian enough to respond.